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1 April 2021

Best running headphones for 2021

Improve your performance with a pair of headphones that are light, comfortable and make your running playlist sound fantastic.
Headphones-for-running
Oliver Trebilcock

Listening to some motivational tunes can make exercise a far more enjoyable experience. However, if you don’t have the right pair of headphones for the job, your music could end up being more of a hindrance than a help.

The wrong pair might not fit securely in your ears as you move about, forcing you to constantly readjust them. In contrast, the best sports headphones stay firmly and comfortably in your ears and make music sound great. Some also have handy features such as a sweat-resistant or water-resistant design.


Whatever you want to use them for, find out more about what makes a great pair of headphones in our guide on how to buy the best headphones.


Sports headphones: how to get a good fit

Headphones for sport and exercise need to be comfortable and fit securely. However, most headphones aren't specifically designed for vigorous activity, so it can be hard to know if they'll have a secure enough fit for exercise.

That’s why Which? tests headphones with a five-member professional panel with a range of ear shapes and sizes. For every pair of headphones we test, we ask our experts to assess how secure the headphones are with their heads upright, tilted to both sides, and tilted forwards and backwards. This way, you'll know whether the headphones have a sufficiently secure enough fit for exercise.

Some headphones are specifically designed for sport, and so have features to keep them more secure in your ears compared with everyday models. Typically these are in-ear headphones, and there are three main types:

  1. In-ear sports headphones with a rubber ‘wing’ that sits in the folds of each ear to provide extra grip. These are the most popular type.
  2. Ear-hook models that loop round your ears to help keep the headphones from falling out. These are more secure but many find them less comfortable, especially for longer sessions.
  3. In-ear headphones with a neckband, which can provide even more stability and peace of mind. These are recommended for vigorous exercise, as they’re least likely to fall out during your run.

Looking to mix up your exercise regime with some new ways to work out from home? Take a look at our guide on how to set up a home gym


Best headphones for running

We’ve rounded up our top headphones for sport and exercise in the table below so you can focus your efforts on that workout.

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71%
Best Buy
Great value
£22.00
Reviewed

These wired headphones prove it's possible to deliver superb sound at an affordable price. Music and speech sound great through these headphones, with punchy pop and clear vocals. They also keep sound leakage to a minimum, so you shouldn't get too many disapproving looks on your morning commute.

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68%
£142.85
Reviewed

These truly wireless headphones are specifically designed for sports and exercise, with special eartips that aim to give you an extra secure fit in your ears. They’re also sweat and weather resistant. The sound quality is great, with a lovely drive and beat that will help keep you motivated. The fit is on the tighter side, but this is good while you’re working out. The battery lasts for five hours between top-ups from the charging case.

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67%
£59.97
Reviewed

These are certainly worth a look even though they don’t quite get a Best Buy. If you’re not a fan of the bulk, fit or short battery lives of most truly wireless headphones, this corded wireless in-ear pair could be the ideal one for you. The earpieces are small and light, and they have a lovely premium well-made build quality well above the norm that should help them to last. They last almost nine hours per charge, and the sound is pleasant, natural and clear.

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65%
Great value
£29.99
Reviewed

Budget truly wireless headphones routinely score poorly in our tests, but this pair is a rare exception. If you can’t stomach paying out for the Apple AirPods, these are a superb alternative for a fraction of the price. They’re comfortable and sound quality is remarkable. While they’re an everyday pair, they’re also fully waterproof so will cope with sweat or rain if used while exercising.

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61%
£159.00
Reviewed

These are aimed at those who enjoy an active lifestyle and come from sports headphones specialist Jaybird. They feature ear fins to provide extra stability during vigorous activities and are fully waterproof, so you don’t have to worry about sweat or rain. Sound quality is good for sports headphones and will keep you in the zone during your workout, while the fit is comfortable and secure.

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Pricing and recommendations correct as of April 2021.

Not found the pair for you? Browse all of our headphone reviews.

Sports headphones to avoid

As well as the sterling examples we've picked out in the table above, we've seen plenty of supposedly exercise-friendly headphones that did terribly in our tests; some were so bad that they'd ruin your workout. The worst offenders are so uncomfortable that you'll be in pain before you're even making any gains, and their sound quality so bad that your ears will be getting tired before your muscles. 

We've exposed some of the worst models you should definitely avoid in the table below to save yourself from a costly error.

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28%
Don't buy
£100.00
Reviewed

These wireless headphones look like they've been lifted from a sci-fi film set and the way they deliver music is pretty far out too. Rather than earbuds these headphones actually send the sound through your cheekbones. Unfortunately, though, they seem to do the job very poorly indeed. Steer clear.

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44%
Don't buy
£199.00
Reviewed

All the features in the world mean nothing when a pair of headphones falls flat on the fundamentals. The sound quality disappoints, with some frequencies missing and background hiss, and it's hard to get an acoustic seal. They're also uncomfortable to wear and fiddly to use – horrendous for the price. There are plenty of superior sports headphones – these are a clear Don’t Buy.

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45%
Don't buy
£229.00
Reviewed

You’d expect these expensive to be near flawless, but you’d be mistaken. Their active noise cancelling is shockingly ineffective. They also have an unreliable and often uncomfortable fit, and the sound quality suffers as a result. Plus, they’re surprisingly light on features considering the price. These would be a seriously costly mistake to buy.

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Best extra headphones for running features

Wireless or wired sports headphones?

When getting a pair of headphones for exercise, you'll need to choose between a wireless pair, which connect to your smartphone or mp3 player via Bluetooth, or a traditional wired pair. 

Wireless headphones are increasingly popular, not least because of the lack of tangle-prone wires. However, you’ll have to remember to keep them charged to avoid being left in silence mid-run, and they won't work with old mp3 players that don't have Bluetooth.

With wireless headphones, you'll benefit from increased freedom of movement. It can be incredibly annoying to have a cable trailing around and catching on your clothes as you run, especially if it’s an intense workout. 

On some headphones, cables rubbing and brushing against you can also really ruin the sound of your music, as vibrations are carried through the cable to your ear – a wireless model won’t be susceptible to this.

Looking for a new way to store your phone or keys when running? Read our guide on the best running armbands and phone holders

Good sound quality

You probably won't need top-of-the-range sound for your workout, but you don't want your music to sound awful, either. Most importantly, you'll need the headphones to have a good acoustic seal so you can hear your music over your activities and block out some unwanted background noise, without having to turn it up too loud (see our guide on how to protect your hearing). 

You certainly want to avoid the scratchy, flat sound of the worst pairs; engaging, driven sound will help you get the most out of your routine.

Fitness-tracking sports headphones

Headphones with fitness-tracking features are rare, but some do exist. 

For example, the Jabra Elite Sport Wireless headphones give you motivational tips during your workout. However, you'll find your options are very limited. Generally, combining a smartwatch or fitness tracker with sports headphones is a more common, flexible and fully featured approach.

Interested to find out how these wearable gadgets can help keep you motivated? Read our guides on how to buy the best smartwatch or fitness tracker.

IP ratings: waterproof and sweatproof sports headphones

While most headphones aren't fully waterproof, many now claim some level of water resistance. Manufacturers commonly advertise what is known as an IP (ingress protection) rating, which tells you exactly how water resistant they are (as tested by the manufacturer). 

Technically, IP ratings claim protection from water, rather than sweat, though in practice you'd expect sports headphones that are water resistant to also offer sweat protection.  

The IP rating also tells you whether headphones offer protection against dust – useful if you like to take your headphones to the beach or frequently drop them in the park.

Ratings include two digits after the 'IP'. The second digit is the more important one: it tells you the level of water resistance. The higher the number, the greater the protection. The first digit indicates protection from dust and other small solid particles. If headphone manufacturers haven't tested for dust protection, this is indicated by an ‘X’ in the IP rating where the first number would otherwise be.

We’ve summarised some of the most common IP rating claims from headphone manufacturers below, and what they mean:

Rating What it means

IPX4

Protection from splashes of water. This is the most common rating and generally considered sufficient to protect against a bit of drizzle, for example. Many dedicated sports headphones will offer this rating.

IPX5

Protection from jets of water, from a garden hose, for example.

IP55

The same water resistance as IPX5, but these headphones are also dust-protected. You’ll only ever see a ‘5’ or ‘6’ for dust protection on headphones. 5 means small amounts of dust may enter, but not enough to impact the function of the headphones.

IPX7

For properly waterproof headphones, a second digit of 7 or 8 is what to look for. IPX7 means the headphones can be fully immersed to a depth of up to one metre in water. The manufacturer will state how long this is for – a typical time would be up to 30 minutes.

IP67

The same water resistance as IPX7, but this also means the headphones are fully dust tight, meaning no dust should enter. This is a good choice if you regularly use your headphones on the beach.

IPX8

This is the highest waterproof IP rating on the scale. The headphones can be immersed in water to depths beyond one metre, and the manufacturer will state the maximum depth and time.

IPX5/8

This is rare and only seen on headphones designed for swimming. It includes separate ratings for fresh and salt water. In this case, the headphones have been tested only for water resistance in fresh water conditions (the ‘5’ rating). However, they have been tested to depths beyond one metre in salt water, so are in fact fully waterproof. The manufacturer will state the maximum depth and time.

Treat IP ratings with a pinch of salt

IP ratings are claims by the manufacturer. The tests are done with stationary headphones in a lab; so in real life, you shouldn’t test their limits.

It’s also very easy to misunderstand IP ratings and risk damaging your headphones. Water resistance measures are primarily designed to offer protection from accidents – dropping your headphones in the washing up bowl, for example. 

You shouldn't deliberately submerge your headphones in water, and a waterproof IP rating does not mean the headphones are suitable for swimming. Dedicated swimming headphones are available, but very rare – they need built-in memory so you don't need your smartphone with you.

Water resistance is a test for water only – not tea, lemonade or whatever else you spill on your headphones. A higher rating only improves your chances of protection.

If a pair of headphones don't live up to promises, you may have a right to complain to the retailer under the Consumer Rights Act, which protects consumers against goods that are 'not as described'.

Some headphones designed for sports and exercise won’t advertise any IP rating – manufacturers aren’t obligated to do so. Even with sports headphones, if the manufacturer makes no claim about water resistance, don’t assume it exists.

For more expert tips on getting the perfect pair of headphones, see our guide to how to buy the best headphones.


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